U.S. Economic Clout May Sink Palestinian Membership Quest at UN Council

Economics and political expediency may trump historical connections to determine whether two swing votes on the United Nations Security Council, Nigeria and Gabon, back the Palestinians’ bid for membership.

The two African nations were among the more than 100 countries that responded to Yasser Arafat’s 1988 declaration of independence by recognizing Palestine. This has led Palestinians to look to them for the ninth vote needed for approval by the 15-member council.

While the Palestinians have dispatched diplomats to the capitals of both nations to plead their case, they carry neither the economic heft nor the far-reaching influence of the U.S., which is working to block the Palestinians’ UN initiative.

“This is now realpolitik, pure and simple,” said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Security Council members today met for about 75 minutes on the Palestinian application. They decided to have a committee of experts meet several times to examine whether the bid fits the criteria for membership.

The review process may drag on for weeks or even months while Mideast Quartet mediating group -- the U.S., European Union, Russia and the UN -- tries to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Still, a council member may call for a vote within 24 hours at any time.

U.S. Market

Both African nations have reasons to disappoint the Palestinians.

“Their market is the U.S., so why would they want to spoil that relationship?” said Juma.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told reporters yesterday that they have secured eight votes, and that they are lobbying for more support for their bid for UN membership. Approval requires nine votes, though passage would be blocked by a promised U.S. veto.

The stakes are also high for the U.S., keen to avoid further fallout from having to wield its veto. Such action might enrage an Arab population already disappointed by President Barack Obama’s refusal to endorse the Palestinian quest for statehood.

“The Americans are desperate not to have it go to a vote,” said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former aide to Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the former U.K. prime minister. “Having to veto is the nightmare scenario for them.”

Obama, Clinton Lobby

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed their opposition to the Palestinian vote when they met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan last week in New York. Clinton repeated the message yesterday in talks with Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru in Washington.

“We have certainly made it clear to all of our friends that we want to see a return” to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Clinton said, standing alongside Ashiru. “Anything which is done which disrupts that or detours that is a postponement of the outcome we are all seeking.”

Nigeria has multifaceted ties with the U.S. Last year, Jonathan got Obama administration backing when he broke an unwritten rule that leadership of the country had to rotate back to a Muslim. Africa’s most populous country is roughly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.

Domestic Matters

Moreover, the U.S. and Israel have offered him counter- terrorism assistance to quell a surge in attacks by Islamic militants, which has become his foremost domestic priority after the Aug. 26 suicide car-bomb attack on a UN compound in Abuja killed 23 people.

Nigeria received $632 million in U.S. aid this year, making it the second-biggest recipient in sub-Saharan Africa after Kenya.

As Africa’s top oil producer, Nigeria supplies 8 percent of U.S. oil imports. U.S. imports from Nigeria totaled $30.5 billion in 2010, up 60 percent, and exports to Nigeria -- mainly vehicles, wheat and machinery -- totaled $4 billion, up 10 percent, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

During last week’s General Assembly debate, when the Palestinian situation took center stage, Jonathan used his address to world leaders to welcome South Sudan as the UN’s 193rd member and didn’t mention the Palestinian issue.

‘Not Twistable’

Nigeria, which takes over the rotating Security Council presidency from Lebanon in October, has indicated its neutrality.

“Our arms are not twistable,” Nigeria’s Ambassador Joy Ogwu said in New York yesterday. “Every nation has its national position on this issue, on principle.”

Gabon is seated on the Security Council for the first time, giving it rare influence.

For Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose first wife was American, cultivating ties with the U.S. has been a policy cornerstone since taking over power in 2009 following the death of his father, who was Africa’s longest-serving dictator.

Obama met with Ondimba in the White House three months ago, an Oval Office session the Gabonese leader called an “unqualified success.” While his father had only visited the White House twice in 41 years in power, most recently in 2004 under President George W. Bush, the new 52-year-old leader wasted no time traveling to the U.S. Last year, he met with Clinton in Washington.

Oil Exports

Gabon’s exports to the U.S., almost entirely oil, increased 80 percent to $2.2 billion last year, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. U.S. exports to Gabon, mainly machinery, totaled $243 million in 2010, up 42 percent.

In May 2009, the U.S. dispatched a Navy ship to help train Gabonese naval officers in maritime security.

Other Security Council members also will weigh economics and history.

In the case of Colombia, Israel and the U.S. are among the government’s top weapons suppliers in its fight against the drug-fueled FARC, Latin America’s biggest and oldest insurgency. Israeli advisers also assisted in the July 2008 rescue of 15 hostages including politician Ingrid Betancourt.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, a research group, said the Colombians would be doing the Americans and Israelis a “huge favor” by staying neutral.

Trade Accord

Colombia has a pending free-trade agreement with the U.S. that has been stalled since 2008. Colombian Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday that the U.S. would be making the “worst mistake” by not honoring a free trade agreement with the Latin American nation.

The U.S. has similar agreements already in force with 17 nations, including Mexico and Chile.

Unlike Brazil, the only other Latin American country in the Security Council, Colombia has set itself apart from its neighbors in the region and withheld recognition of Palestine.

Bosnia, another first-timer on the Security Council, recognized Palestine in 1992 when it also declared its own independence before plunging into three-year war. Its position today is complicated by the divisions along ethnic and religious lines. Bosnia’s Muslims and Catholic Croats tend to side with the Palestinians while the Serbs support Israel.

The U.S. also has close ties to Bosnia given its instrumental role in ending the 1992-1995 war there, which culminated in a 20-day negotiating session at the Wright- Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The resulting Dayton peace accords, as the agreement came to be known, divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serbian republic.

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net; Bill Varner in United Nations at wvarner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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